A highly teachable moment? If not now, when? New skills for a radically different skills environment
This is a short version of a longer essay available to download from my website
It goes without saying that this period, globally, will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. Here in the UK we have been presented, more or less concurrently, with a coalescence of three highly specific points of change
- Black Lives Matter
These are underpinned by two other significant global transformational trends
- a greater awareness of the climate crisis
- rapid digitisation and the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Taken together, these create a set of alchemical conditions which provide a potent crucible for cultural change - if we respond appropriately.
A potent crucible for cultural change: significant points of change
- in political and economic terms, the UK’s exit from the European Union was sealed by the unequivocal election in December 2019 of a Conservative majority government with a clear mandate to conclude legal and trade arrangements within the year.
- a global health and social crisis caused by Covid-19, a deadly strain of coronavirus that has created an unprecedented pandemic.
- questions about our history and heritage and how this is reflected in our civic and cultural lives have moved centre stage following the horrific killing of George Floyd in the USA. It is now essential that we address the ingrained injustices of structural racism.
- a greater awareness of the environmental effects of the climate crisis and growing commitment to sustainability and the green economy
- accelerated adaptation to rapid digitisation and all innovations of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
A highly teachable moment?
As the social commentator and priest Richard Rohr has remarked
‘We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad’.
This piece intentionally goes broad and outlines five ideas that need to be scrutinised more deeply by a range of individuals and organisations who are in a position to take tings forward.
The 5Rs process: reflect, rethink, reframe recreate, resurge
I suggest that each idea
· is examined through the unique cultural lens presented by these extraordinary times.
· is considered through a consistent cognitive methodology which follows the pattern reflect, rethink, reframe recreate, resurge – the 5Rs process
· is connected thematically and strategically, so they are evaluated holistically.
If not now, when?
Finally, I encourage us to act now to change the skills narrative. We can choose to channel the energy of disruption into a breaking free from habitual dualistic patterns of thinking and acting. A friend once described this behaviour as ‘some people only feeling alive when they are invalidating the other’ Pitching one against the other invariably leads to and perpetuates what former Prime Minister Theresa May termed the ‘coarsening’ of public debate. We need to behave differently using a discourse that will help turn the tide of ugly rhetoric and offensive commentary. We can do so by using the urgency of innovation to seek collaborative, creative, and compassionate solutions to contemporary issues as we have shown we can do throughout this crisis.
As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reminds us ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In fact, space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’
This now is the opportunity before our politicians and leaders, our opinion formers and policy-makers, our institutions and families – each and every citizen - and if not now, when?
The 5Rs applied to five connected ideas
§ a long term plan for education and skills
§ an independent National Education & Skills Commission
§ a digital premium for digitally excluded students, workers and households
§ integrated policy reforms linking the forthcoming Devolution and FE White Papers
§ introducing a Post Qualification Admissions system for university entrance
A long term plan for education and skills
A radically different skills market, in common with a hugely changed health and social care environment, needs a long term plan. There is widespread acknowledgement that the NHS 10-year plan, based on objectives determined by users and practitioners and guaranteed long term government funding, is a welcome and positive initiative that commands cross political party support. A similar long term strategy for education and skills policy, shaped by the voices of those who use and benefit from the system, is long overdue.
Shaped by the prevailing zeitgeist, co-created with teachers, families and students using the 5Rs process, and linked to the other ideas outlined here, a long term plan could I believe, transform the nation and the life chances of future generations. Educational charities such as City & Guilds, think tanks and organisations such as Policy Exchange and the Foundation for Education Development as well as the current Chairman of the Education Select Committee are all exploring this notion. The door of this idea is ajar, and we could help it to open wider. So, if not now when?
An independent National Education & Skills Commission
Government has created a National Infrastructure Commission to take an independent, professional, advisory long term view of the nation’s infrastructure needs informed by evidence and data and determined in conjunction with planners and local communities. Education and skills – our intellectual and emotional infrastructure - surely deserve as much attention as housing and transportation from a panel of non-partisan, well-informed experts? Government should set up a National Education & Skills Commission involving a wide cross section of people and engaging with a broad range of people locally and regionally to provide specialist advice and independent oversight and scrutiny of the 10-year plan for Education and Skills.
I believe the changing cultural context makes this possible, and necessary, and that the public wants change in the way policies that affect us are devised and implemented. We should apply the 5Rs process to all manner of current problems and ensure that teams with a range of people are engaged in finding solutions. Teamwork in action - in parliament, in the media, in a range of other leadership settings - should become routine not a temporary response to ‘a national crisis’. Leaders from all walks of life and at all levels are vital role models. We expect them to conduct civilised debate in public where differences of opinion and experience are heard, valued and worked through. The Covid-19 crisis has exemplified this. It should become the new ‘visual’ normal - and if not now when?
A digital premium for digitally excluded students, workers and households
Lockdown and social isolation threw the digital switch overnight - across the nation and world. Futurologists had been predicting this would happen for decades, but adoption of an online life had been up until recently a rather individualistically evolving affair – and an activity many in society were prevented from engaging with due to lack of resources or geographic location. In the blink of an eye, however, a systemic nationwide technological revolution has taken place. Economically, socially, existentially, we all needed the availability of fast broadband, a reliable internet connection, and access to a computer, tablet or smart phone for ‘normal’ life to continue to function. As schools, shops, workplaces, institutions, charities, places of worship – almost the entire social fabric of society - shut down and we retreated to the confines of our homes, hasty arrangements were made (or not) for the digital switch. Our work, retail, social and leisure lives moved online. We were exposed to the use of hitherto unfamiliar Wi-Fi platforms and acquired video conferencing skills, not infrequently taught us by our children, grandchildren, family and friends.
This revealed another inequity - that for the 1.9 million households in the UK who do not have access to the internet, digital exclusion is a reality in contemporary Britain. When safe, we will resume many of our familiar face-to-face social habits and workplace activities but having made the switch, learnt the skills, experienced the personal benefits of flexible home working and less frequent commuting, we will integrate newly acquired behaviours into our ‘new norm’. Many of us will also make sustainable choices as part of our individual contribution to the climate crisis – increasing our digital fingerprint because it reduces our carbon footprint.
What would it cost to get the 1.9 million households online and provided with kit and subscriptions, assuming the government accelerates roll out of fast broadband? The national charity for digital exclusion, The Good Things Foundation could tell us, and we should explore this further with them and apply the 5Rs process to the issue. One possible solution would be the introduction of a digital premium funded through charitable donations. Something along the lines of the ‘pupil premium’ could be administered through schools, colleges and universities and by working creatively with government officials and trades’ unions, solutions for workplaces and households, maybe through the existing welfare benefit system, could be devised. The digital premium should be financed through one off donations from individual tech entrepreneur philanthropists or from designated Covid-19 emergency funds created from the charitable foundations of the giant tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Zoom whose fortunes have profited from the pandemic. So, if not now when?
Integrated policy reforms linking the forthcoming Devolution and FE White Papers
Skills polices are often seen as the poor relation of education policy – an illustration in practice of the binary thinking that I refer to above and which has for too long permeated our policy making and political discourse. It is for this reason that I make the case above for an education and skills plan and an education and skills commission. Governments of all political colours tend to focus on education policy. Arguably, if policies for early years and learning to aged 18 were successful, we could entrust skills for life training to families and youth charities like the Scouts, Girl Guides, and the National Citizenship Service and specific job related skills training to employers. It doesn’t work so neatly as that in practice. This is why we need a further and adult education sector where people, usually aged 16 to over 90, can undertake an initial training or a retraining course in craft, vocational and technical skills, catch up on basic numeracy, language, and literacy skills or complete an apprenticeship. Local Further Education Colleges and Adult Education institutions are the skills lifeblood of their local economies. Skills policy development needs to be based in and linked to place-making at a local and regional level. Will the forthcoming FE White Paper be linked to the Devolution White Paper also planned for the autumn?
Will the FE White Paper include an expansion of and more funding for the National Retraining Scheme and details of the much talked about National Skills Fund? Will it incorporate successful practice from other countries such as a system of a skills credit similar to that which operates in Singapore?* Will the FE White Paper seize the moment to drive through radical changes in curriculum design and delivery, online learning, e-assessment, employer engagement in skills, and apprenticeship reform – all in the context of leadership of place??
Events present the national and local government, the opposition parties and the FE teaching profession with significant opportunities to use the approaches described here to break the mould of silo formed policy thinking. I urge those responsible to apply the 5R methodology to the drafting and consultation processes for the White Papers. Not only are the political conditions propitious, they are aligned to and supported by the overall environment of cultural change outlined here. So, if not now when?
A Post Qualification Admissions system for university entrance
Times are bleak for the university sector which finds itself in a state of acute turmoil – just the conditions in which to make a change to the university admissions system not least because in 2020 students will not have taken ‘school leaving’ exams
As far as back as the Dearing Report in 1997, it was argued that a system of applications based on a student’s actual achievement would ‘assist students since they know more about their abilities (and possibly their interests) having received their examination results and having studied for longer’. A subsequent review of admissions commissioned by the government and chaired by then Brunel Vice Chancellor Steven Schwartz argued in 2004 that the system of ‘relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair … since it is based on data which are not reliable, is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence’. The report urged the immediate creation of a post-qualification admissions system PQA.
I appreciate that the idea of introducing yet another disruption in universities, which has either already been rejected or has received a mixed reaction over the last 20 years, risks my being metaphorically hung, drawn, and quartered by the university vice chancellors. However, I would argue that the current turbulence presents the opportunity NOT to resist change again.
If not now, when?
My overall message is clear - leaders across the spectrum of the political and educational establishments, I urge you to be bold, ride the wave of this unique set of opportunities. Apply the 5Rs – reflect on the opportunities , rethink and reframe issues in light of all the other changes affecting you and wider society, recreate a better systems for the long term, and lead a resurgence in our education and skills world that will be remembered for generations, because, if not now when?